In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Ned Flanders takes two bullets to the chest. The pious neighbor walks away unscathed, all thanks to a Bible and a piece of wood from the ol’ rugged cross under his shirt.
Although the show is meant to be satirical, it’s a scene played out with a straight face in the rest of fiction, most notably the crime genre. A character is seemingly shot to death, only to stand back up thanks to a convenient object beneath the clothing that “stopped the bullet.”
So how close is this to reality? Is it possible for this to happen?
The Short Answer
Yes, but the odds are pretty low. Here’s why.
A bullet in motion, like any other projectile, transfers its kinetic energy into whatever it hits. That energy is what causes the bullet to penetrate a target, in this case a character. There are two ways to prevent this from happening: absorption and deflection.
Possibility #1: Absorption, aka “Stopping the Bullet”
In order for the bullet to stop, the energy needs to go somewhere other than into the character. The best bet is a material that can absorb that energy without causing injury to the character. It must be strong, yet flexible enough not to break.
That’s why ballistic resistant gear is made from threads of durable, synthetic fibers woven together. Energy leaves the bullet and becomes trapped in the web of the fibers, sort of like a soccer ball getting caught in the netting of a goal. Other variations are made from tough plates that act like high-tech armor, but still apply the same principle of absorbing the energy.
Any conveniently placed item – a book, a flask or even Ned’s piece of cross – needs to be able to do same. A malleable piece of metal would work better than wood, since that will splinter into pieces. However, metal can also indent and cause injury anyway.
What about a book? Or even the good book itself, the Bible? Books are decent at absorbing energy. However, larger calibers are going to punch through books – as well as other small items – without a problem.
Possibility #2: Deflection, The More Likely Option
That’s why deflection is more likely than “stopping the bullet.” Anything hard will do, although metal wins top honors. Don’t forget human bone, too. It’s actually a good candidate for deflection, especially the skull. Just remember that bullets don’t magically disappear. A deflected shot has to terminate somewhere.
Be it absorption or deflection, the conveniently placed item isn’t the only factor at play. Distance, caliber, bullet type, trajectory and more can all influence what happens. I made some generalizations here so writers don’t get all Tom Clancy on readers. Leave me a comment if you have a specific scene in mind.
Bottom Line: Luck Isn’t On Your Side
No matter what, the character with the conveniently placed item would be extremely lucky – and left with a bastard of a bruise. The item would also need to be lucky, since it would need to absorb or deflect the bullet’s kinetic energy without shattering or puncturing the character’s body.
That doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It’s just not probable. What a writer does with this slim percentage isn’t up to me. I’m just here to explain what’s going on here. Take my word for it. This isn’t one you want to try at home.
Get the Book
The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers: